On Saturday, September 11, 1926, copies of the first issue of theElectric Refrigeration Newswere placed at a breakfast table in Waldenwoods, MI. Scheduled to meet there that morning were 100 representatives from leading refrigeration manufacturers, who had gathered to discuss the state of their rapidly expanding industry.

An industry full of promise now had its own specialized trade publication. The 1920s heralded an explosion in refrigeration and air conditioning that would continue throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

Some Early Pioneers of Refrigeration

The roots of cooling technology stretch back beyond the 20th century, even to antiquity. Yet historians point to the developments of the latter half of the nineteenth century as the beginning of mechanical refrigeration. It is the efforts of these early refrigeration pioneers that made the burgeoning growth of refrigeration and air conditioning in the early twentieth century possible.

American physician Dr. John Gorrie is credited by many as the first to design, construct, and operate a refrigeration system for comfort cooling. Gorrie, in search of cool air to ease the suffering of malaria patients in Apalachicola, FL, had experimented as early as 1842 with blowing air over buckets of ice brought in from northern cities to cool the sickrooms of patients.

As shipments of ice to Florida proved unreliable, he sought to create a compressed air refrigerating system to help his patients. He traveled to Cincinnati, OH, to construct a working model of his ice machine. When the model was finished, it was taken apart and shipped south to Apalachicola, where it provided both ice and comfort cooling for Gorrie’s hospital ward. He petitioned for a U.S. patent in 1848, and received confirmation of patent No. 8080 in 1851.

Gorrie did not profit from his invention, however. The established commercial ice trade, which had turned the harvesting of natural blocks of ice into a major industry, ridiculed the idea. Northern newspapers, which relied on the advertising of the ice merchants, joined the chorus, and Gorrie found it impossible to secure the financial backing to further his aims of mass-producing his machine.

Commercial refrigeration began to take off shortly thereafter, as American civil engineer Alexander Twining advanced the work of others in vapor-compression refrigeration. Twining’s ice-making plant in Cleveland, OH, in 1855 was perhaps the earliest success in manufacturing ice in commercial quantities. Australian printer and newspaperman James Harrison had been developing a refrigeration machine based on Gorrie’s and Twining’s designs, and he sailed to England to consult with the steam engineering firm of Siebe & Co. about producing his machine. The result was a new design, which earned British patent No. 2362 in 1857.

Harrison returned to Aus-tralia the next year and set up an ice-making plant while Siebe and Co. continued to mass-produce Harrison’s ice-making machine.

Meanwhile, experimentation in absorption refrigeration was ongoing in France. Edmond Carré developed the first absorption machine in 1850, using water and sulfuric acid. His brother Fer-dinand Carré’s experiments culminated in the development of a system that used ammonia and water as a refrigerant. Carré’s system was patented in France in 1859 and in the United States in 1860.

While the Civil War meant a blockade of the commercial ice shipments and prevented Twining’s and Harrison’s designs from catching on in the South, Carré’s invention was smuggled into Louisiana and Texas, where it was put to use making ice.

The first practical, portable compressor refrigeration machine was built in 1873 in Munich, Germany by Carl Linde. His early prototypes used methyl ether, but he switched to ammonia in 1877, and his refined design was commercially manufactured in 1879.

Commercial refrigeration continued to evolve. Steam-driven mechanical refrigeration was put to use not only in commercial ice-making, but in the brewing, dairy, and meatpacking industries as well. Large, cumbersome, and constantly leaking ammonia, these systems required manual operation and maintenance by skilled workers, making them suitable for commercial use only.

Refrigeration was still a long way from everyday use in the home. The only practical method of preserving food consisted of iceboxes, which were serviced by door-to-door icemen, who delivered slabs of ice harvested from frozen lakes or rivers, or manufactured in ice-making plants.

The first electric power plant would not open in New York until 1882, and it would be until the turn of the century that electricity would be routinely available in cities. The advent of electric power in the home would spark the coming boom in refrigeration and air conditioning in the twentieth century.

Original centrifugal chiller being tested at Carrier's Newark, NJ headquarters, 1922. (Courtesy of Carrier Corporation.)

The Birth of Air Conditioning

Refrigeration technology came first, and air conditioning technology followed — first for industrial and commercial use, then for residential applications.

Refrigeration engineer Gardner T. Voorhees first introduced the public to the cooling side of air conditioning at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO — the same World’s Fair at which ice cream was introduced.

Other mechanically refrigerated comfort cooling systems installed around this time included the St. Nicholas Garden in New York City in 1906 and the system designed by Arthur Feldman for the bank offices of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in New York City. In 1907, a carbon dioxide direct-expansion air cooling system, designed by Andrews & Johnson Co. and Fred Wittenmeier of Kroeschell Bros. Ice Machine Co., was installed for the Chicago Congress Hotel’s banquet and meeting rooms.

Stuart Cramer was the first to use the term “air conditioning.” He used it on a patent he filed in April 1906. It was Willis Carrier, though, who revolutionized the soon-to-be launched air conditioning industry.

Willis Haviland Carrier began working as an engineer for the Buffalo Forge Co. in 1901 after graduating from Cornell University. In 1902, Carrier solved a humidity problem at a printing plant by controlling the humidity with the use of cooling coils. Unfortunately, this system was retrofitted to a hot-blast heating system and didn’t maintain design conditions.

While Carrier conducted experiments for the printing application, he comprehended the idea of “fighting fire with fire” or, in this case, dehumidifying the air though the use of water — that is, evaporative cooling.

Carrier also designed a spray-type air conditioner, which could control absolute humidity of the air leaving the conditioner, and thus the relative humidity of the conditioned space. Buffalo Forge Co. began producing the “Apparatus for Treating Air” (a.k.a. air washer) in 1905, and Carrier received U.S. Patent 808,897 on Jan. 2, 1906. In 1907 he received another U.S. patent for a dewpoint control device.

Carrier convinced his company that it could make money by manufacturing products for humidity control. Towards this end, the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America was founded as a subsidiary to the Buffalo Forge Co.

In 1911, Carrier presented his “Rational Psychrometric Formulae” to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. These formulae are still the building blocks for calculations used in the air conditioning industry.

While centrifugal or turbocompressors were utilized during the 1890s, it wasn’t until Carrier’s day that they were used for air conditioning. Carrier and Alfred Stacy experimented and came up with a package chiller with a centrifugal compressor. The machine, first completed in 1922, had welded steel shell and brass tube heat exchangers and was covered by several patents. It went into production in 1924.

Though air conditioning had been installed in various types of buildings, most people in the United States didn’t experience it until movie houses began installing air conditioning in the 1920s. As the movie palaces became air conditioned, people thronged to the movies during the summer, providing so much profit for movie house owners that it paid for them to install air conditioning.

Two General Electric Monitor Top refrigerators at the Refrigeration Research Museum in Brighton, MI.

The Growth of Domestic Refrigeration

Though light commercial refrigeration units were developed by about 1910, refrigerators for household use would take a little longer to develop. Manufacturers needed to design and manufacture a refrigerator that was small enough to fit well in a house and that didn’t need maintenance in the same manner a commercial unit did — one that was “idiot proof.”

Many individuals and small companies worked on this endeavor, but it was some of the big companies that were able to solve some of the technical problems and had the business experience to market the refrigerators to the public.

Fred W. Wolf Jr. began manufacturing a refrigerating machine called the “DOMELRE,” short for DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator, in 1914. Packard Motor Car Co. bought the rights to it in 1916, founded the Isko Corp. to manufacture the units, and moved its facilities from Chicago, IL to Detroit, MI.

Ultimately, the DOMELRE was a failure, though it did have several design features that were used in later refrigerators, such as a self-contained unit that could be placed within an existing icebox and an ice cube tray. More importantly, the DOLMERE required a lower electrical current, so it could be plugged into an ordinary light socket.

Nathaniel Wales and Edmund Copeland (the founder of today’s Copeland Corp.), a purchasing agent for General Motors (GM), decided to develop an absorption-type refrigerator. GM president William Durant didn’t support their work. The two went ahead anyway and developed a vapor-compression-type system. By 1917, their company made one that operated fairly well. Thus was born the Kelvinator Corp., which later became a part of Chrysler Corp. for a while.

Despite the fact that he’d discouraged Wales and Copeland, Durant realized his mistake and tried to buy Kelvinator. Though his attempt was unsuccessful, Durant didn’t give up on the refrigerator idea. He bought the out-of-business Guardian Friger-ator Co. in 1918 and renamed it Frigidaire. By 1923, Frigidaire sales were robust.

General Electric (GE) got into the refrigerator business through its connection making Audiffren-Singrun machines in the United States. The design, a sulfur-dioxide compression machine, was invented by Cistercian monk Marcel Audiffren for keeping wine cool. He received a French patent in 1895, and after making improvements to the machine in collaboration with Albert Singrun, a second patent was issued in 1908.

The American Audiffren Refrigerating Machine Co. bought the patent rights, and GE was tapped to manufacture the equipment. This unit didn’t fit well in the home, so around 1917, GE engineers began work on coming up with their own refrigerator design.

In 1920, GE began using a hermetically sealed compressor. The “General Electric Refrigerator” was announced in 1925. The company decided to sell the refrigerator as a whole unit, rather than trying to retrofit iceboxes. Later, GE came out with the “Monitor Top,” which sold well.

Frigidaire's 1929 household refrigerator had a forced draft expelling the heat through an opening in the rear and new 1/4 and 1/6 hp compressors, which were said at the time to be unusually quiet.

Air Conditioning for the Home

In 1920, many refrigerating systems were steam-engine-driven, which made mechanically refrigerated a/c systems costly. With the improvements in household refrigeration technology came the opportunity to apply some of this technology to room cooling.

Frigidaire introduced a split-system room cooler in 1929. GE also developed its own room cooling unit — a water chiller using its Monitor Top refrigerator units. The company then went on to design a room cooler that was self-contained.

Early on, Carrier’s company was more focused on commercial air conditioning than residential, so it wasn’t until the 1930s that Carrier introduced air conditioning units for the home, such as the “Atmospheric Cabinet” in 1932.


Early refrigerators used a variety of toxic gases — ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide — as their refrigerant. After lethal accidents occurred due to methyl chloride leaks, a collaborative effort to find a nontoxic refrigerant was launched by GM, Frigidaire, and E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co.

Thomas Midgley Jr., with the help of Charles Kettering (both of GM), invented chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). A patent was issued on Dec. 31, 1928, but it would be in the next decade that CFCs would flourish.

In 1930, GM and DuPont formed a partnership — the Kinetic Chemical Co. — to produce CFCs, which were given the trade name Freon. Freon was used not only for air conditioning and refrigeration, but eventually found use as a propellant in spray cans. Its production and use was discontinued in many countries in the 1990s due to its harmful effects to the atmosphere’s ozone layer.

Publication date: 04/30/2001